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Published: 2012/10/31
by Tony Beers

The Keystone (or Hitchhiking To Garcia)

The Grateful Dead, the San Francisco rock band of epic psychedelic coolness, were to play a benefit concert that Saturday at the Berkeley Community Center for the Performing Arts. It was at that very moment when I fully realized that Jerry Garcia was, in fact, going to play with his own band in this tiny bar next to the campus that very night, two days before the benefit was to happen.

I knew it was meant for me to be there, and to get a ticket inside this bar was important, but it was only some years later that I understood just how significant that moment was for me. I walked away up the block to get my bearings. After finding food in the form of Blondie’s Pizza, a student favorite high on the hill, I headed back towards the forming line. On the way I stopped on the sidewalk and peered into a storefront window. I smiled at the middle-aged man restocking a display of flashlights in the small hardware. He was a bit startled at my childlike interest. My eyes beamed through the glass with a brilliance he seemed to recognize, but I couldn’t yet. My bliss, almost a religion that I had often confused with higher consciousness, was what I later came to know as mere ignorance, that insolent blindfold of youth. I was drawn to his kindness though. He waved me in, I think. I was I wasn’t sure if he really wanted me to come into the store. It was like when I was 17 and I had a miracle chance encounter with Timothy Leary at a get-together in someone’s house. I wasn’t sure if I understood his cue to follow him into the kitchen to talk privately, so I stayed in the living room. I wasn’t confident enough then or now to know when to follow either man’s lead. I regret both hesitations, given that I wanted to speak to both men and they seemed to want to talk to me. The guy in the hardware store was not of any notoriety, but somehow, as crazy as it may seem, I think both men could have been the same guy. Years later, I recognized the guy in the hardware store many times in the mentors I’ve had throughout my life — and Tim, I’ve never failed to recognize him in every child’s eyes since.

When I left there had been just a few Deadheads mingling outside the club; when I got back I found a long line forming down the sidewalk. Taking my position at the back of the line, I began making friends, all of us vowing to hold each other’s places when we had to go get food or whatever. All I knew was that I was determined to be cool. Bakersfield may have been hell, but this was by far the place with the coolest people I’d seen in my life so far and I was determined to blend in, not be too cocky, and soak up the coolness for all it was worth.

As the line got longer it also got bigger, filling up most of the sidewalk with small circles of heads getting to know each other quickly, if they didn’t already. We played music and discussed scams to get into the show if we didn’t get one of the 250 tickets going on sale at seven o’clock. And, of course, we dealt drugs – no hard stuff really, but I wasn’t paying attention to anyone unless they were talking about LSD. Berkeley acid was still legendary among hippies in California, but for a kid from the East Coast and a ‘70’s second-generation head anyway, Berkeley was nothing short of Mecca. This was the source. The birthplace of Orange Sunshine and Purple Haze, this was where the Grateful Dead played as the house band for the original Acid Tests of 1965-67. It was 1981 now and here I was, finally, and it wasn’t too late and it was beautiful! We smoked dope right on the street and drank beer carefully. Like in any good college town the cops seemed to be at least tolerant. I lost track of the hippie chick I had had my eye on, but I didn’t care. There were so many women with us, or walking past and joining our burgeoning street party, or just teeming all over the place — the campus, the dorms, the bookstore, wow! Everyone seemed to be in a good mood, too. Totally comfortable in that moment, without any worry, I felt free. I was so excited. It was great to be alive.

By the time the afternoon faded into sunset, I was having the time of my life. When the guy came up the line stopping every now and then along his way to gently squeeze a drop from the head of an eye dropper against a welcoming outstretched hand in an informal exchange for a couple of bucks, I knew. Liquid! LSD, pure and simple! Here was my chance to have quite possibly the best acid on the planet. The time for that delicacy was dwindling. This was a brilliant liquid that could bring a man back to the mirror of his childhood. Tapping into the deepest of psychological wells, it was so rich; it was the kaleidoscope of dreams. It was the caviar of psychedelics.

I said, “Hello my friend, how’s it going?”

“It’s going down smooth and beautiful my man. Two bucks a drop, or whatever you wish to donate, if you can dig that, bro – just hold out your hand and I’ll make you a little puddle that’ll knock you out!”

Now, being the hard core East Coast acid freak that I was, I took control of the situation, taking the bottle out of his hand and tipping it up over my open mouth. I squeezed it… one second, two seconds, maybe three. I stopped, and relinquishing the eye-dropper to the guy I said, “Oh, don’t worry, man, I’ll give you more than two dollars.” He looked sort of pale, his mouth and eyes wide, as I tried to hand him a five-dollar bill. He quickly said, “Oh, I’m not worried about the money at all. Keep it. I just hope you’re gonna be all right… that stuff is as pure as it gets, at least 250 mics a drop! Like, I really want you to be all right, ok? Know what I’m sayin’ bro?”

“Yeah, I mean, thank you for your concern and all, but I’m good. Good as gold, good as gold brother. Don’t worry ‘bout me.”

Within a few seconds after he walked away, I realized that my bravado was slipping quickly into fear. The strength and purity of the drug was evident immediately — most definitely going to be nothing I’d experienced before. What was coming internally — the implosion of my psyche, the crippling breakdown and paralysis of my personality’s compass, then a guttural cathartic rendering — sort of a reintroduction of myself to myself, was not what scared me the most. It was the inevitable social interaction with my newfound peers and my ability to fit in that worried me. Being cool and handling this in front of these people was paramount. In my silly mind, they would surely see right through me to reveal a scared repressed kid from an uptight East Coast family, just posing as cool – I wanted to project myself as a spiritual shaman of sorts, perhaps on a journey — a road full of love and loss, but metamorphosis too. A mysterious traveler from a great distance. I just didn’t want my insides leaking out too much at this time, in this place.

“As good as gold” became the mantra I repeated to myself over and over again as the line began to move. I remember admitting to myself that this was the highest I’d ever been in my life and that I’d better take good care of myself. When I noticed peoples’ faces beginning to melt though, just a little bit out of the corner of my eye, I quickly looked away. “I’m OK…as good as gold, as good as gold, as good as gold.” I thought that I was getting a foothold on a sense of things while looking down at the ground, between what was really happening and what was my free-falling imagination. I was trying to graft on to my gut the suredness of experience that I didn’t really have. Suddenly the line broke free. There was a rush for the door of fans that were not in the line at all, and it was instant mayhem — I felt uncomfortable, too close to the pushing. I freaked out. My memory goes blank here for a few minutes, but I remember looking down the street toward the back of the line and, releasing myself from the crowd, I gave up my place in line and just walked away. I passed the last couple of people at the end of the line, who, with my new handicap of visual hallucinations now in full bloom, seemed to be earnestly begging me for an extra ticket, but it was hard to tell: their faces, contorting from young and beautiful to very old and almost skeletal, frightened me so much I had to run away from them. Finally, with the dark empty sidewalk stretching out ahead of me, I began to feel better. I realized that I’d been holding my breath, so I began to breathe again and felt a calm. I saw in my exhaled breath plumes of bright blue and green oblong balloons billowing into the dark air in front of me; pleasantly distracted from my fear and confusion, I was about to sit down on the empty sidewalk and try to get a grip on what was happening back at the club – was it all in my mind? Then I felt a shift in my lower spine. I straightened my back and suddenly a warm sensation was there – an effervescence of tiny diamonds inside tiny bubbles, like the fizz of club soda, began pulsating, flowing slowly up my back.

Of course I didn’t understand it at the time, but as I walked back towards the throng of people and lights spilling into the street from the precious jewel I came to know as The Keystone, my shoulders seemed to broaden with every stride. Imperceptible to me then, the process of my personhood began that day, spreading out wider and wider into the sensitive phoenix I would later become.

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